Covid: More self-isolation exemptions considered as caution urged over falling cases

Hundreds of thousands of people are being told to self-isolate every week. Credit: PA

More workers could soon be eligible for exemption from coronavirus self-isolation as caution is urged around a sustained drop in daily Covid-19 infections.

Ministers are considering whether an exemption - allowing some double-vaccinated workers within 16 industries to escape self-isolation following a coronavirus contact - should be extended to further sectors.

Current exemptions, which see workers tested for Covid-19 to ensure they're not carrying the virus, were granted to some critical industries including food supply, amid warnings about staff shortages leading to empty supermarket shelves.

But more could be added to the exemption list after the latest 'pingdemic' figures showed almost 620,000 people in one week had recently been told to self-isolate by their NHS Covid app.

How the Covid-19 NHS app works

How and when should I pause contact tracing?

Users of the app can pause contact tracing by selecting 'Manage contact tracing' on the home screen, then toggle on or off.

You should pause contact tracing when you:

  • are working behind a fixed screen and are fully protected from other people

  • store your phone in a locker or communal area, for example while working or taking part in a leisure activity like swimming

  • are a worker in health and social care and are wearing medical grade PPE such as a surgical mask

  • are a healthcare worker working in a healthcare building such as a hospital or GP surgery 

You can set a reminder to turn contact tracing back on after 4 hours, 8 hours or 12 hours. 

When contact tracing is paused, you will still be able to check into venues with an official NHS QR code poster.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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When will I be 'pinged' by the NHS app?

If an app user tests positive for coronavirus, they can choose to share their result anonymously.

The NHS will then send alerts to other app users who have spent time near them, or been in ‘close contact', over the last few days. These alerts will never identify an individual.

‘Close contact’ is based on an algorithm, but generally means you've been within 2 metres of someone with coronavirus for 15 minutes or more. 

If the app user who tested positive booked their test through the app, the test result will come through to their app automatically. However they still need to click ‘share random IDs’ before their close contacts can be notified. If they booked their test through another route, they will also need to link their test result into the app using a code.

This means that you will not always receive a close contact alert on the same day that the person received their positive test result.

Your self-isolation period is calculated from the date at which you were in close contact with the person who tested positive. 

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What should I do if I am 'pinged' by the app?

If you receive an alert telling you that you've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, and you need to self-isolate, then you will have to say at home for a full 10 days following that contact.

It can take up to 10 days for symptoms to appear. People in your household will not need to isolate unless you develop symptoms.

If you develop coronavirus symptoms during this 10 day period, you are advised to use the symptom checker in the NHS COVID-19 app to find out if it could be coronavirus.

If the app confirms that you may have coronavirus, it will take you to a website where you can book a coronavirus test.

If you have coronavirus symptoms, you and anyone in your household or support bubble will have to stay at home until you’ve been tested, and got your result and advice on what to do next.

If you do not develop symptoms after 10 days, you can stop self-isolating. You will not need a coronavirus test.

If you are under 18 years old, and test positive for coronavirus, you should notify a trusted adult before taking any action.

If you have questions about how the advice applies to you, or are struggling with self-isolation, you are advised to call 111.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What is the difference between contact tracing and checking into venues?

Contact tracing and the venue check-in function are two methods used by the NHS COVID-19 app,

When you have contact tracing switched on, your app will use Bluetooth to know when it has come into close contact with other nearby app users.

‘Close contact’ is generally 2 metres for 15 minutes or more.

If any of those nearby app users later test positive for coronavirus, you will receive an alert with advice on what to do.

The alerts are based on a ‘risk-scoring algorithm’ developed by scientific experts.

When you check into venues using the app and official NHS QR code posters, this data is held on your phone.

If it’s identified that people who were there on the same day have since tested positive for coronavirus, you may get an alert with advice on what to do.

The venue check-in feature works independently of the contact tracing feature.

If you get a venue alert it will not tell you to self-isolate.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What alerts will the NHS COVID-19 app send me?

The NHS COVID-19 app will send alerts in these situations:

  • You’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). 

  • You have visited a venue where you may have come into contact with others who have since tested positive for COVID-19. 

  • Information for your local area has changed.

  • Information for your local area about variants of concern. 

  • You booked your test through the app, and your test results have arrived.

  • You have paused contact tracing and set a reminder to turn it back on.

  • Your guidance has changed. For example, your self-isolation period has come to an end. 

  • You are advised or required to update your app to the latest version. 

  • You did not select 'Notify others' or 'Do not notify others' and over 24 hours have passed. 

  • If you need to self-isolate, you'll be able to see this in the app as a self-isolation countdown timer.

  • Other alerts may say: “Possible COVID-19 Exposure''.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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The Covid operations sub-committee of Cabinet will meet on Monday to discuss whether to widen the number of jobs eligible for the testing regime, or whether to boost the numbers for existing sectors in order to tackle the “pingdemic”.

Their decisions will depend on the demand registered with Whitehall departments.

Refuse collectors are expected to receive assistance, while the hospitality industry is not.

Around 10,000 workers in the food sector are expected to be included in the scheme for fully vaccinated workers to be exempt from isolation if they test negative.

And new testing sites are expected to be allocated for frontline police and fire services to prevent major shortages of critical staff.

However some experts want things to remain as they are until all double vaccinated adults are exempt from self-isolation on August 16, so that daily coronavirus cases can continue to fall.

Daily infections have continued to fall from 46,558 on July 20 to 29,173 on July 25 - but only time will tell if the third Covid wave is "turning round", says Dr Mike Tildesley from the government's Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M).

Downing Street said the fall in cases was "encouraging" but numbers were still expected to rise and Boris Johnson believes "we're not out of the woods yet".

"We should still expect to see a rise in case numbers given the move to Step 4 last week," the PM's spokesman said.

Education minister Vicky Ford said that while the sustained drop in coronavirus cases was "very good news", she warned against complacency.

She told Sky News: "We all know how quickly it can go back up again.

"I think it does show how important it is that we continue to take issues like self-isolation really seriously as well and continue to encourage people to get that vaccine, and the double vaccine indeed, because that's going to be the way that we get out of this longer term."

The mayor of Copeland, a local authority in Cumbria which was forced by staff shortages to stop recycling collections for two weeks, said he is eagerly awaiting an announcement on isolation exemptions for refuse collectors.

Shops have been struggling to stock their shelves as a result of the "pingdemic." Credit: PA

Mike Starkie told ITV News that "waste workers are an essential service and these guys have been heroes of this pandemic in every bit as much as any other public sector worker".

"It's vitally important that refuse is collected on timescale so hopefully we'll get some announcement today on where the exemption might support what we're trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, education minister Ms Ford also repeatedly refused to rule out that students could be required to be double-vaccinated in order to attend university lectures in person and live in halls of residence.

The Times reported Boris Johnson had suggested the move in order to help drive up the rates of young people taking up the vaccine.

Minister Vicky Ford did not deny the measures were being considered, when asked about the reports by ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan.

Listen to the ITV News Coronavirus Podcast:

Dr Tildesley accepted that any drop in infections is "clearly is good news" but said the fall could be down to children breaking up from school.

The expert in infectious diseases, from the University of Warwick, told the BBC: "Secondary school children have been doing lateral flow tests twice a week for quite a long period of time and we know at the moment cases are slightly higher in younger people, (and) because schools have now broken up, it may be that part of the reason cases have dropped somewhat is that we're not detecting as many cases in younger people now.

"The other thing we do need to look at before we really draw confidence in whether we are seeing everything turning round is what's happening with hospital admissions and, of course, what's happening with deaths."

He added: "I would say that the fact the cases have gone down for the last five days or so is... I'm cautiously optimistic about that, but I think we're going to have to wait another couple of weeks before we see, firstly, the effect of the 19th of July relaxation and, second, whether hospital admissions will start to go down.

"I think if they do then at that point we can be much more confident that we're starting to see, hopefully, this wave turning round."